A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

  I have come to the conclusion that commanding an entire army cannot be more difficult than holding the reins of eighteen ten-year-olds.

  Yes. You laugh. I can hear you laughing, and I can only hope that one day you too will find yourself in a similar position. It will be good for you. I am convinced, in fact, that it will be beneficial to your moral development. Ten- year-old boys here are little different than we were at that age. They all share one skill. They can turn order into chaos between one heartbeat and the next. These boys live for practical jokes, or “stings,” and the most valued of these stings—which never err on the side of subtlety—are those that catch radlavs by surprise.

  You will have an opportunity to practice patience. Everyone tells us patience is a virtue. When you have heard for the five hundredth repetition the same jokes that you did not find funny the first time, or had to keep your gaze sternly on the table lest the same two boys endeavor to begin yet another bread-pill flinging contest, or any of the other crazed plots that ten-year-olds think original and funny, you must maintain your court mask as though you never heard a word. No anger or laughter. One lapse, and they do not forget.

  Amazing, how a small society will take on the tone of its leadership. And the 2 leaders of our pack of scrubs could conquer the vast Land of the Chwahir. All by themselves, just by their indefatigable and stolid resistance to civilization. Tevac could rule the universe, if he put his invention to anything useful, instead of circumventing rules and inventing stings. His faithful lieutenant, the huge yellow-haired Mondar, I think is actually a horse in human guise. Not very human, either. Unlike his older brother—who is quite ordinary, if on the quiet side—he’s stronger than most men, tireless after extra chores that would defeat half the seniors, and incapable of any subtlety whatever…


  Shevraeth scanned the boys’ faces before he spoke.

  They were tolerably easy to read: wary, apprehensive, scowling, worried, and one or two challenging and resentful.

  He had learned so far that small boys felt they had won something if they made rads angry. Even if they got punished, in their worldview they had still won.

  So he had not been surprised to overhear a brag—Shevraeth’s never breezed us—a few days before. Just now he’d been considering whether a couple of them had meant for him to overhear as he walked rapidly back from target practice, and discovered four crimson-faced boys, who had obviously run in the hot summer air all the way from the stable, in the act of shoving horse droppings into rival boys’ bunks. He knew it was no happenstance that they’d picked his day watch in which to execute their sting.

  Never one to put off trouble, he’d ordered them to line up.

  He kept his face bland, his voice pleasant and light. “It’s true, Mondar, none of you have gotten a breeze from me. And it’s no accident.”

  Furtive looks, nudges, and one grin convinced him that yes, he’d been meant to overhear.

  “And you probably won’t get a breeze from me. I say probably, because who knows what will happen in the future?” He smiled.

  The grins faded to speculation, and a couple of the scowls turned to apprehension as feet shuffled, bony shoulders twitched, tousled heads turned to examine sky, the stone flags of the court, shoes.

  “In the meantime, I can promise you this.”

  He whacked the wand against his boot. Snap! Their attention was back.

  “I prefer not to use violence against human beings. Supposedly we all have the wit to learn to make constructive choices. I believe, and will exert myself to convince you, that actions always have consequences.”

  He put the wand in his sash. The scrubs were puzzled by his speech patterns, a couple of them irritated by them though they could not have defined why they found his style of talk so intimidating. It strayed outside experience.

  “The consequences you are accustomed to are your breezes. A little pain, and you go right on. But consequences in the real world do not end there. They go on, and on, and on, like the ripples in a pond when you skip a rock.”

  Pause again.

  “Like what?” Tevac asked, brows aslant. “I mean, with us?”

  “I am glad you asked. Like, for example, if you continue putting disgusting things in one another’s shoes, or beds, then I am going to think you really don’t understand the consequences of making messes that someone else has to clean up. So on Lastday, when the other houses are at the game, you will collect all the dress boots owned by the seniors and you will clean and polish them. Inside and out. If you still feel you must throw bread pills at meals, during your rec period you will march to the mess hall, and clean the entire floor.”

  “You idiot, Tevac,” someone muttered.

  “I want you,” Shevraeth said, feeling a quiver of laughter in his stomach, “to consider the consequences next time you contemplate an action. If you stop and consider, then there’s no need for this.” He flicked the wand in his sash with dismissive fingers. “There will be an inspection before mess,” he added, “since you seem to have little to do right now.”

  Inspection meant yet another thorough cleaning of the barracks. He left, and this time pretended not to hear the mutters, sighs, and threats, because they were all aimed at Tevac.

  Marec was waiting in Shevraeth’s tiny room. Shevraeth shut the door, and Marec dropped down onto the bed, snickering hoarsely in an effort to keep from being overheard by the boys. “You were terrifying.”

  Shevraeth looked at him in surprise. “I was? I meant to be reasonable.”

  “Sometimes reasonable is frightening,” Marec said, still snickering. “Go on. Start your rec watch before it rains. I’ll run the inspection.”

  The windows let in the strange, orangish glare that precedes a sunset thunderstorm. So Shevraeth flung the wand down on his bed—he refused to go into the city with that thing—and passed through the cleaning frame.

  As he walked toward the old mossy tunnel that led from the academy into the castle, he considered how things could change both outwardly and inwardly, and without any fanfaronade whatsoever. Last year he’d been told that the practice courts were for free practice between lessons. What that had meant—last year—was that Sindan and the seniors had had certain ones marked off for their quarrels. So no one below senior level dared go there for extra practice, and had to make do with their own small courts, or the alleyways between buildings.

  This year, outside the senior wall was reserved for violent resolution of private quarrels (now strictly supervised by other boys), but the practice courts were just that.

  Shevraeth learned it from Marec by the end of the second week. He was in the habit of rising before dawn now, though he no longer had private riding lessons. On the mornings when he didn’t have wakeup duty, he thought: why not get in extra practice, since he was used to getting up early?

  After he and Stad encountered one another more than once in the early morning, they met by design. Stad was by far the better in everything except knife throwing. There he and Shevraeth were nearly even. At their morning practices together they’d shoot against one another unless the wind was bad, and then do some double-stick practice, or contact fighting.

  Shevraeth liked the extra practice—but what with those and being a rad, there hadn’t been time for reading.

  So on this, his first free day, he did not go to the library as he had on his half-watch rec periods previously. He still had a half-read book in his cubbyhole of a room. Instead he kept right on going straight into the city, with no goal or plan. Just thinking.

  Terrifying? Marec had to have been making fun of him. He could not see how it was possible for him to be frightening to anyone in this strange kingdom where he’d felt more fear during those first months than at any other time in his life. Even when King Galdran was ranting.

  “I am no threat to anyone,” he muttered, scarcely aware he was talking, as he turned down a street at random, and strolled along, looking at the rows of sand-colored stone building
s, small windows low down, broader windows higher. “Not even boys of ten.”

  Not that he wanted to be threatening to small boys. Except... was that the only way you maintained authority over them?

  He grimaced. This whole idea of authority over others—that they had to do what you said, or they’d be in trouble, even if what you said was stupid—unsettled him. His mother had taught him that civilization was achieved when everyone chose to do the right thing, even if no one was there watching. Of course, he’d discovered when he was older, that ‘the right thing’ wasn’t always the same thing for different people. Was that where governing by fear, and not by sense, happened? He liked to think he had more sense than ten-year-old boys, but they only seemed to obey him if he threatened them. Why?

  Well, he didn’t have to think about it now. For the first time he was in the city, but to his eyes it may as well have been an extension of the castle. The first thing you noticed was that this city would be tough to attack. Yet the Marlovens had managed to make it somewhat pleasant, at least to an eye now grown accustomed to ubiquitous stone. The color of that stone was not the light gray granite so common everywhere else, but a light, warm sandy-peach color. The even stone squares of the clean streets contrasted with leafing pepper trees planted at intervals.

  One saw no artistic carving, nor heard much in the way of musical instruments, two common things in Remalna-city. But Marlovens did sing ballads, most in variations on a galloping rhythm.

  “Hey! Shevraeth!”

  A familiar voice—a girl’s voice. There was Senelac in the company of two other girls, all three in their uniforms, as he was. He recognized the two from the stables, though neither had ever spoken to him.

  “Going for your foreigner pastries?” Senelac flashed a white-toothed grin, her brown face framed by dark, curling short hair.

  “Foreigner pastries?” he asked. “Where?”

  All three girls exclaimed, “You didn’t know?”

  Shevraeth turned out his hands.

  “Come on. You can tell us if their sweet-rolls are really like the ones in Old Sartor, or if they’re lying.”

  “I wouldn’t know what Old Sartor’s food is like,” he said as he joined the girls. “Or even new, Sartor having so recently rejoined the world.”

  Senelac waved a hand. “To us it’s all the same, that cosseted eastern stuff, with all their fans and lace and strange foods that don’t look like anything you’d recognize.”

  He could hear her joking tone, but he sensed the curiosity the girls were trying to hide. What he didn’t sense was their interest in him.

  Two, three blocks, as the wind moaned round stone corners and blew at hair and clothes; big warm raindrops began to splotch their tunics as they ran across a street, dashing round a cart laden with cabbages, and through a door.

  The shop was a narrow long room much like those at home, a counter down one side, behind which were wooden shelves with glass-fronted bread-boxes. Inside all those boxes were cakes and pastries, many of which were indeed familiar.

  The aromas of baking pastry emanating from behind a billowing curtain were so enticing that he didn’t mind the extra heat accompanying the delicious smells. Small tables lined the opposite wall; two of them were occupied but the last, nearest the back, was free. The four made for it, despite the heat, and sat down as lightning flared outside. A sudden downpour hissed. They laughed at their narrow escape from the deluge and watched the rain sheeting with satisfaction. The sinking sun had not quite been blocked yet, its slanting rays touching the raindrops to silver. The downpour intensified, droplets bouncing back up in a steamy haze.

  A girl their own age, dressed in a yellow tunic and green trousers, came up. “Hey, Fenis. Maddar. Shem. Who’s this?”

  “Shevraeth the Foreigner,” Senelac said. “This here is Henad.”

  “Oh,” Henad said, studying Shevraeth with interest.

  Senelac turned to him, still grinning. “So. You pick for us. What do you recognize over there?” She waved her hand at the fresh baked goods in the glass boxes. “What is good where you come from?”

  Shevraeth moved along the counter, studying the pastries.

  From behind came a whisper, “Fenis, make him talk. I love the way he talks.”

  The impulse to keep going right through the door was strong. He squashed it, and ordered four familiar pastries, one with custard, another with berries, a five layer cake made with thin layers of spiced pastry laced with ground nuts and fitted between thin layers of sweet buttercream. The fourth was a dark little cake iced with hardened chocolate, his mother’s favorite.

  “Who’s paying?” Henad asked.

  “Who has the most money left this quarter?” Senelac asked her friends.

  “Put it on mine,” Shevraeth said, and the others looked startled. He added uncertainly, “At least, Commander Keriam gave me to understand that this was customary. And if so, I have never used any. There ought to be plenty left from the ordinary expenses we incur.”

  “If you gave him money to hold, then that’s the way to do it.” Shem smiled at him.

  He nodded at Henad, and the girls thanked him for their share. When Henad brought the pastries, he waited for them to choose, knowing he’d like whatever was left. They all avoided the chocolate one, and he wondered why.

  Henad said to him, “I can’t get them to try chocolate. I know they’d like it. We have some customers who come from outside the city and stop here first, because of these.”

  “It looks like it sat outside for a year.” One of the girls, the one with very fair hair, wrinkled her nose. “I want to see buttercream. Then I know it’s real pastry.”

  The girls exclaimed their enjoyment.

  Senelac was amused by the way her two friends sat facing the foreigner, directing their comments to him, and listening to his every word. She could see they found him attractive. He was much harder to read. As always.

  He was discovering how nice it was to sit with three girls. Three pretty ones, though a year ago he wouldn’t have thought about it. He began comparing them to the girls at home, with their elaborate hair and clothes, all dressed with gems and ribbons and velvet in winter and flowers in summer. These girls wore the same clothes he did, but he caught himself looking at the tunics for hints of the shape beneath, and forced his eyes back to his pastry. The girls’ voices, even their smell, were all so... pleasant.

  The talk was nothing much—they asked about the Puppy Pit and he made a few jokes about bread-pill fights and inspections, discovering (as usual) they’d already heard about such things. Further, apparently young girls weren’t all that different. They too had scarfles, only more elaborate, including midnight picnics.

  Then they talked about the horses, most of whose names he now knew. He became aware of everyone working to keep the talk in safe channels, much like one would at a court, but without the tricks of reference to old poems or songs or plays. No one introduced anything deep or meaningful or even all that interesting. It was only chatter, yet no one seemed bored, or impatient.

  He found his gaze straying again—not to pale blond Maddar, or red-haired Shem. He kept wishing that Senelac would lean close, or that he could move near. What did she look like under that old smock, and did her dark, curling hair really smell like sage, or was he imagining it?

  There was only one bad moment, a brief one, and afterward he was glad that he had not been the cause, however inadvertent. In fact, he did not even know which word it was of Maddar’s, when they were talking about old riding games among their grandmothers during their academy days. A place name, he was fairly certain. Darchelde, was that it? Whatever it was, it wiped the smiles from all their faces as if flicked away by an invisible cloth.

  But then Senelac started talking with a determined air about her grandmother’s cherished academy medal, awarded by the old king. The others commented, a little self-conscious at first. Then gradually relaxed.

  A bell rang, and despite the rain it was time to go.
Henad bade them all good-bye, and the girls took off on a footrace, laughing as they sprinted, their entrance to the academy being farther up through the labyrinth of the castle.

  Fenis. Shevraeth smiled reflectively all the way to the Puppy Pit.


  Up ahead, Shem said, “Why do they always like you best, Senelac?”

  She laughed. “I guess it’s my staggering beauty.”

  Maddar hooted, then turned to Shem. “How could you tell he liked her? He was so nice and smiling, like a traveling player on a platform. Was any of that real?”

  “Are you blind! He kept sneaking peeks at Fenis. You were too busy stuffing your face.”

  “Oh, feed it to the horses,” Maddar said in disgust, on the others’ laughter. “Got any interest in him, Fen?”

  “He reminds me of the king,” Senelac said, as they rounded the last corner.

  “Whee-ew,” Shem exclaimed, slinging rain off her braids.

  “Bad or good?” Maddar asked, brows aslant.

  Senelac tipped her hands back and forth. The other two laughed appreciatively as they splashed through a puddle.

  And then they were home.


  It took him four days to discover that her name was for a wild herb of the plains.


  Lastday, the scrubs marched out to the game field. After several days of painfully good behavior, the boys let loose pent-up feelings with shoving fights, shrill laughter, and wild insults shouted up at the Houses ahead, who were the enemy for the day. In between these fits of wildness they sang snatches of marching songs with loud, tuneless enthusiasm.

  Shevraeth walked at the back, and fought against yawns. He’d risen early for extra practice, and expected a long, boring afternoon. He now understood the reasoning behind the games, and played as hard as he could when he was with his own House, but he still didn’t really care about winning flags. Instead he kept trying to comprehend the whole while he ran about in the game, never with much success.

  He was sure it would be the same today. As a rad he was expected to guard a boundary. He would not even get to run. He knew he’d be bored half to sleep, and so he deliberately chose the most uncomfortable of the boundaries atop the jumble of rocks dotting the little hillock at the north border, beneath a spreading tree.

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